I had a conversation last night that went something like this:
My friend S to me: “Hey, you like to cook, you should join our Cooking Club, we get together every Sunday night and make food and watch Mad Men, it’s really fun!”
S to her friend A, also a member of said club: “Noëlle’s a great cook, she makes all kinds of stuff…”
A to me (apparently trying to suss out whether I was Cooking Club material): “Oh really? What kind of stuff do you cook?”
Me (with a touch of pride): “Well, I just made puff pastry for the first time…”
Him (interrupts): “Oh, so you’re a baker.”
Me: “No, I mean, I participate in this baking-challenge thingy to try to broaden my skills or whatever, but mostly I cook…”
Him: “No, but you’re a baker.”
Here’s where it got weird, because I then found myself getting strangely defensive, insisting that no, I’m not a baker, I don’t even really like sweets that much, I was probably going to use my remaining puff pastry to make some sort of savory tart, and that 80-90% of the time I spend in the kitchen is spent cooking, not baking. I really have no idea why it was important to him to stress that I was a “baker” rather than a cook, or why it was important to me to correct that impression, but so it was.
My challenge results this month will back up my point. I didn’t have too hard a time making the actual puff pastry dough, but shaping it into the vols-au-vent was an exercise in frustration. I first made a batch that were supposed to be heart-shaped, which I was planning on taking to a bridal shower, but they were all so misshapen that I didn’t even bother. The photo is of the best-looking ones of the bunch, and even those look pretty funky. I put a little spoonful of honey into the hollow and topped them with raspberries and walnuts and they were tasty enough, but I wanted to do something more challenge-worthy, so I decided to attempt another batch. This time I did square(ish) cutouts and made a pastry cream to fill them with. I still had a terrible time handling the dough- it seems it can’t be at room temperature for more than a minute or two, and then you have to return it to the fridge lest it go all gooey on you. It took me longer to cut the dough into shapes and assemble them than it did to to bake it and make the filling, because I had to keep stopping and re-chilling the dough.
My finished shells didn’t look like much- they were irregular and had cracks in the bases- but once I got them filled with pastry cream and threw a bunch of raspberries on top, no one was much complaining. I filled the shells about an hour or two before they were eaten, and the pastry held its crunch nicely without getting soggy, so I was pleased with that. But I’m still not calling myself a baker.
And now a word of thanks for our hostess: The September 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan. (Coincidentally, the recipe I used for the pastry cream was also from Dorie Greenspan, from her book Paris Sweets.)
I do want to thank Steph for throwing down the gauntlet and getting me to make something I’ve always wanted to try but have been too intimidated. Now that I know the dough is doable, perhaps I’ll make it again but just use it for preparations that don’t involve so much handling, such as a tart crust. For a recipe and instructions on making puff pastry, just click the link to Steph’s blog.
I have to admit that my Halloween spirit was at a low this year. I think it had something to do with the fact that my good friend Katie, whom I have celebrated Halloween with the last several years and who is really into dressing up and having a good costume, moved away earlier this year. I truly wish I was one of those crafty people who can’t wait for the chance to get out the sewing machine or hit the thrift store in pursuit of a great costume, but I tend to be more of the lazy last-minute type who is frantically digging in my closet at 6pm Halloween night.
Seeing as how I didn’t get dressed up, I figured the least I could do was try to get creative with some Halloween-themed food. We were invited to a casual dinner of turkey chili at our friends Jeff & Megan’s house, so I decided to bring a dessert. I have to mention that even with a 7-month-old baby, these two manage to pull off hosting a great party with delicious food and make it seem effortless. Makes me feel that I need to work on my time management skills! (By the way, the chili, which was excellent, was made from the cookbook Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites; they just added ground turkey to the veg recipe.)
Being short on time, I needed to find something that would be relatively simple. I was flipping through an old copy of Martha Stewart Living and found a recipe where she had taken layers of puff pastry, filled it with cheese and mustard, and used pumpkin-shaped cookie cutters to cut out each pastry. Since I was enlisted to bring a dessert item, I adapted the recipe to be sweet rather than savory. Everything I used was store-bought, so it was more of an assembly than actual baking. The finished product wasn’t as pretty as something Martha would have made, but considering that I was winging it I thought it was not so bad. I got many compliments from the other party guests, so I guess taste won out over good looks. I know Halloween is over, but this idea could be adapted to any holiday really, just by changing the shape of the cookie cutter and/ or the filling. I definitely want to toy around with it some more and will update if I hit upon a superior method.
Pumpkin-Pecan Puff Pastry Bites with Orange Glaze
1 package store-bought puff pastry (see note)
1 jar pumpkin butter or pumpkin pie filling (about 6 or 7 oz)
1/2 cup toasted pecan pieces
1/4 cup sugar
2 tbs butter
1 tbs natural orange flavor
red+yellow (or orange) food coloring
flour, for dusting
Preheat oven to 375. Defrost puff pastry if necessary (it will thaw quickly at room temp; don’t let it get too warm). On a clean countertop or piece of parchment paper, sprinkle a light dusting of flour. Lay one of your squares of pastry on the flour. Spread the pumpkin butter on the pastry, leaving about an inch around the edges. Sprinkle on the pecans. Place the second piece of pastry on top. Lightly dust a rolling pin and roll the two sheets out until they are about 30% larger than their original surface area (keep the size of your cookie cutter in mind and try to maximize the number of cutouts). If at any point the pastry seems too sticky or hard to work with, put it in the fridge to chill for a few minutes. When you’re done rolling out, put the pastry in the refrigerator while you make the glaze.
Melt the butter in a small bowl; when it is melted, stir in the sugar, orange flavor, and a couple drops food coloring to make a nice pumpkiny orange color. If the glaze seems too grainy, you can nuke it on LOW power for 10-20 seconds at a time; this should help melt the sugar. Just be careful; melted sugar is extremely hot! If you don’t want to bother making a glaze, you could just melt some apricot jam in the microwave with a little water and use that for the glaze. Another glaze alternative would be to brush the tops with beaten egg white and sprinkle with orange sugar (just omit the butter from the glaze recipe).
Take a couple cookie sheets and line them with parchment paper (optional, but will make your cleanup a heck of a lot easier). Use pumpkin-shaped cookie cutter to cut out as many shapes as possible. Lay them on your cookie sheet. If you like, you can take a sharp knife or razor blade and make little vertical slashes for the pumpkin ridges. (I also cooked the scrap pieces; those are the cook’s treat!) Bake for 15 minutes in the middle of the oven. Take the pastries out and brush with the orange glaze; return to the oven for another 5 minutes. (I put my glaze on when they were still cold, but I think they would have turned out a little better if I had waited; that way you don’t risk the sugar burning.) Let cool for 5-10 minutes before eating. (These are best eaten warm, and will get slightly soggy if you have to put them in a closed container.)